Weevils bounce second straight GAC opponent
While he obviously didn’t think of football when he wrote his famous song “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Bob Dylan’s 1960s protest movement lyrics—or at least the title—could very well apply to the Great American Conference gridiron in 2017.
After three weeks, defending league champion Harding University is winless, preseason coaches’ pick Southern Arkansas University already has one loss and a group of contenders—including the University of Arkansas at Monticello—is threatening to turn the GAC upside down.
UAM made its latest and loudest (so far) statement in a 49-7 blowout of East Central University Saturday on Parents and Family Appreciation Day at Willis “Convoy” Leslie Cotton Boll Stadium. The win, which was the Boll Weevils’ second in a row, moved UAM to 2-1 in the league (all 11 of the Weevils’ games are GAC contests).
“We played a very consistent game,” seventh-year UAM head coach Hud Jackson said. “I thought our defense had their best outing in a long time here. We caused turnovers and won the third-down game. Jeremy Jackson had an outstanding game.”
Jeremy Jackson, converted from running back to cornerback for his senior season, highlighted the evening with a 76-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. That pick six, six total tackles (five solo) and three passes broken up earned the three-year letterman accolades as the GAC’s Defensive Player of the Week (see accompanying story).
Just as he had the week before with his feet, junior quarterback Cole Sears was the catalyst for the explosive UAM offense. A game after he scored four rushing touchdowns in a road win over Northwestern Oklahoma State University, Sears again accounted for five scores—but this time, four of them were through the air.
Three of his touchdown tosses staked the Weevils to a 21-point lead midway through the second quarter, and UAM was able to coast from there. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder finished with 23 completions on 34 attempts for 283 yards and those four touchdowns. Sears threw his first interception of 2017, too, but that lone miscue came in the third quarter when the Weevils were well in control.
“Offensively, it was a good outing,” Jackson noted. “Cole Sears played very well and very smart. Jalen Tolliver played great. I thought Warren Leapheart did some good things. I’m very proud of both our offensive line and defensive line. Those units were key to us winning.
“We do have to get better in the kickoff coverage unit of special teams and field-goal unit. We need to make field goals when we have the chance.”
Indeed, looking at at the dominating performance by the hosts on both sides of the ball, about the only thing with which Hud Jackson could find fault was the two errant three-point tries—although both were more than 40-yard attempts—and neither miss was game-changing.
UAM outgained East Central 511-251, had to punt only once in the entire game and scored on three of four chances in the red zone. Of course, four of the Weevils’ scores (including Jeremy Jackson’s 76-yard pick six) were big plays, the kind of which in recent years UAM was on the wrong end more than the right one.
The game began as if neither team wanted to score but that didn’t last long. On the Weevils’ second drive of the night, Sears found little-used senior wide receiver Ed Smith from 12 yards out. With sophomore Josh Marini’s extra point, UAM was up 7-0 and rolling.
A 41-yard strike from Sears to senior Trevon Smith set the stage for what became a staple of the Weevils’ offense last fall—a Sears-to-Tolliver touchdown pass. The 10-yard toss at 8:15 of the second quarter gave the hosts a 21-0 advantage and moved the senior All-American closer to breaking one of UAM’s oldest school records.
Tolliver would add a second touchdown reception in the second half, giving him 25 for his career, just five scores from replacing Hubert Heflin in the school record books. Heflin ended his career (1949-52) with 29 receiving touchdowns. Tolliver, who got his first two touchdowns in 2016 but scored 14 times a year ago, still has at least eight games to go.
After allowing ECU’s lone score with 2:17 remaining before halftime, the Weevil defense pitched a shutout after intermission while watching the offense put up 28 more points. Aside from Tolliver’s fourth-quarter score (a 44-yard pass from Sears) and Jeremy Jackson’s pick six, Sears rushed for his fifth score of the season on a 31-yard run and redshirt freshman Logan Penn scored the first touchdown of his UAM career on a 10-yard run that sealed the 42-point win before a packed house.
“There was a great crowd at the game,” Hud Jackson praised. “The players really feed off the energy.”
The coach is likely wishing he could bring all those Kelly Green and White-clad fans on the road right now—because the tasks don’t get any easier for the Weevils. This Saturday, UAM must travel to Durant, Okla. to face another GAC upstart. Southeastern Oklahoma State University has started the fall 3-0, and is currently tied for the league’s top spot with Arkansas Tech University.
A trip to Searcy to face Harding (which defeated UAM 57-7 a year ago) looms next on Sept. 30. The next home contest for the Weevils will be Oct. 7 when they host the currently undefeated Wonder Boys.
Elsewhere around the GAC, Southern Nazarene University surprised again by beating Harding 28-27 for its first-ever victory over the Bisons—on the road at Searcy, no less. Tech blasted Oklahoma Baptist University 58-21 and Southeastern got by Ouachita Baptist University 41-35 to remain unbeaten.
In other games, it was Northwestern surprising Henderson State University 36-30 in Arkadelphia and SAU dropping Southwestern Oklahoma State University 38-14.
The amazing start to 2017 by the Crimson Storm, picked last by the coaches in the 12-team GAC in the preseason, should be tempered somewhat this weekend. Even though SNU is at home in Bethany, Okla., it hosts No. 16 Arkansas Tech, which started its season by rolling past SAU and Henderson State, both of which were nationally ranked before their games with the Wonder Boys.
And there will be only one team in the GAC without a victory following the weekend’s action, as the two winless teams—Harding and Oklahoma Baptist—face off in Shawnee, Okla.
In a scheduling quirk, all six Arkansas schools in the GAC are on the road Saturday.